Oregon Refuge Occupiers Send Armed Group Away; Community Wants Them All Gone

PHOTO: A man stands guard after members of the "3% of Idaho" group along with several other organizations arrived at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016.Rick Bowmer/AP Photo
A man stands guard after members of the "3% of Idaho" group along with several other organizations arrived at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016.

They rolled up in a long convoy of pickup trucks and utility vehicles -- members of Idaho’s 3 percent group and the Pacific Patriot Network. Heavily armed, assault rifles at the ready, they waded into the dwindling number of media and others at the entrance of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge headquarters today and took over a press conference arranged by the group occupying the reserve, led by Ammon Bundy.

It's the latest in a series of conflicts or missteps between groups pressing different causes that have been drawn to the refuge. Earlier this week there was a fistfight between rival groups seeking attention or a way to press their own case for change.

"We are here to create a safety buffer," 3 percent leader Brandon Curtiss told the media, but not long after that, Curtiss and his followers came back from inside the reserve and left, after being told they were not needed.

"The Bundys have tried to put the word out -- we don't need you, it is the last thing we need or want to here," attorney Todd McFarlane, who is close to the Bundy team, told ABC News.

Any escalation of the crisis could derail local efforts to end the occupation. In Burns, there's little sign of the occupation of the wildlife refuge buildings just a snowy 40-minute drive away. There are no high profile federal law enforcement agencies at the ready -- no armored cars or FBI agents roaming the streets. In fact it's difficult to find any representative of the federal government.

The resolution of the occupation is, right now, in the hands of the residents of Harney County.

"We don’t like being told what to do," a waitress at one of the local restaurants says, echoing what we hear every day here.

They don't like being told what to do, and it doesn’t matter whether it's the federal government or outside protesters doing the telling.

Weeks ago, activist Ammon Bundy -- the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy -- came to Burns saying he wanted to support the community efforts to help a local rancher and his son sentenced to four years in jail for setting fires on federal range land.

The federal government controls most of the land in Harney County and the locals have competing opinions about their landlord. Proud ranchers or loggers drive the economy here and most resent being dependent on the uncertain rulings of the federal agencies that manage the land. Their grievances, and the arrest and conviction of two of their own, led to a protest march on January 2.

Bundy and friends were there. Unknown to many of the locals, they had planned the takeover in advance and took action after the rally.

At a community meeting here this past week, almost all those attending supported the Harney County Sheriff David Ward’s efforts to end the occupation. They wanted Bundy's group gone.

Bundy has said he and his group will leave when the residents are organized and able to get a "redress of their grievances," but even the community activist group he helped start, the Harney County Committee on Safety, has sent a letter to Bundy thanking him but telling him and all those at the refuge that it's time to go.

PHOTO: Tom Schaefer holds his son Isaac, while looking on during the Harney County committee of safety town hall called to discuss the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, in Burns, Ore.Rick Bowmer/AP Photo
Tom Schaefer holds his son Isaac, while looking on during the Harney County committee of safety town hall called to discuss the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, in Burns, Ore.

"There is a time to go home ... we know that," Bundy has said. "It's just not now."

One of the reasons for the occupation, according to organizers, is that the community has not been able to stand up for itself. It is now. Several members of the safety committee say they plan to meet with him in the next few days to help negotiate an end to the occupation. The sheriff has promised to escort Bundy and the others out of the state.

"They should declare victory and go," one resident told us, and then refused to give his name.

Bundy and a dozen or two followers continued the occupation of the federal buildings at the refuge Saturday night. It was quiet and cold and, so far, there was no clear end in sight.